Ben’s Blog: On Going Business.

Posted July 18th, 2017 by Ben

Cinema is both the business of art and the art of business and both highly prize the skill of meaning what you say without necessarily saying what you mean…

Many of the greatest films derive their power from being not quite what you think they are. Casablanca is a great love story, but about the love of idealism not of old flames. Withnail and I is a comic celebration that, in the final scene, reveals itself to have been a requiem all along. These truths are not hidden, instead they seem to be obscured by shining so brightly that audiences tend to look away from them.

We are used to business language being artfully deceptive. Terms like “sub-prime” act as a gentle buffer between meaning and understanding. There’s nothing actually false in the phrase yet it still contains an elegant sleight-of-hand, as in the way one might use “sub-optimal” to describe the choice of time bomb as alarm clock.

However, so conditioned are we to not hear truth when accountants speak, it is also possible to miss a fact spoken plainly. For instance, a while ago now, HMRC issued a clarification on its regulations governing the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS). The scheme allows companies who meet a very specific set of requirements to offer investors a variety of tax benefits. This was instantly appealing to filmmakers. Indeed at first glance, the SEIS, with its maximum investment capped at £150k, seems perfectly designed for the micro-budget filmmaker, or the financially sub-prime producer if you prefer.

Before going further I should stress that I am not an accountant, nor am I qualified to offer investment advice and the value of any market can go down as well as up and your home will be risk if you do not keep up with payments. I’m also not writing this to examine the implications of the clarification for either investors, producers or for accountants (though the answer is that the accounts win, because that’s founding principle of our civilisation). Rather I’m interested in what the language is saying, often without being heard.

HMRC’s clarification was that an SEIS had to create “on going business”, which is increasingly being interpreted as ruling out the funding of a single feature film. A film is made, sold, seen and then, broadly speaking, lies dormant. It does not “on go”, an ephemerality emphasised by the ubiquitous “Single Purpose Vehicle”. An SPV is a company set up specifically to make one film and nothing else, in order to protect investors in your current project from all your other costly failures. HMRC want to see on going business but film finance wants a bomb shelter.

Not without good reason. Accidents happen. Investors need protection. But when people complain about how rare it is for film careers to stretch beyond a single movie, how the UK stumbles from accidental success to tangential triumph without building up a head of steam, it is worth remembering that a lack of on going business is built into the DNA of our industry.

Perhaps, just perhaps, we should think slightly less about reducing exposure to risk and just a little more about sharing the rewards.

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